Are TikTok’s ‘Illness Influencers’ Giving You Health Anxiety?

TikTok and Instagram are becoming increasingly saturated with sickness content.

Most of us have been guilty of turning to Doctor Google at one time or another.

A quick Google search about the possible causes of your sore throat can leave even the most logical of us thinking the worst.

This experience, however, isn’t exclusive to search platforms—apps like TikTok and Instagram are becoming increasingly saturated with health content.

While some of this content might be relatively objective information shared by medical professionals, a significant amount comes from content creators who are experiencing an illness or condition themselves.

In these videos, ‘illness influencers‘ may share everything from the symptoms leading to their eventual diagnosis to ‘days in the life’ style videos of someone with a certain disease. It’s not uncommon to witness a stranger’s hospital visits, intensive medical treatments or even the last days of someone’s life.

The way TikTok’s algorithm works means that these videos can appear almost cruelly, at random—you might be laughing at a video of a puppy before you suddenly find yourself trying to process someone’s terminal illness diagnosis.

This emotional whiplash isn’t of course, the creator’s fault. There’s no doubt that sharing these experiences can be an empowering way to feel seen and find connection with people going through the same thing.

But this doesn’t mean the videos, and the way we consume them, don’t have their implications.

“Watching another persons illness or dying days can be incredibly emotionally draining and can leave us feeling helpless,” psychologist Carly Dober tells marie claire Australia.

“We don’t know them and are unable to help them. That can be a very stressful and sad experience.”

Can tiktok cause health anxiety?
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As both TikTok and Instagram’s algorithms will generally show you more of a topic, the more you watch it, it’s easy to get stuck in an endless loop of distressing content.

While the obvious solution is to simply not watch the content we find upsetting, there can also be a guilt associated with looking away.

Whether it’s the coverage of the war in Gaza or someone’s terminal illness on TikTok, we can feel like we have a moral obligation to witness these tragedies and prove that we do, in fact, care.

Carly, however, emphasises that it’s more than okay to stop watching this type of content if you find it distressing.

“Previous generations would not be privy to the amount of suffering we can see in todays digitally connected age. I’m not convinced that the human brain is able to healthily process the sheer amount of content from witnessing so many people experiencing pain and hardship,” Carly explains.

“It is absolutely okay to feel like watching so many videos about this subject is ‘too much’ and objectively, the amount of information we are taking in online is too much. We might watch hundreds of videos in an hour depending on the social media site we use, and this is an enormous amount of information. This can cause significant cognitive fatigue, and that’s not even considering the themes within the content.”

Can tiktok cause health anxiety?
(Credit: Getty )

The other implication of these videos, is of course, the same thing that happens when plugging our symptoms into Google.

But while intentionally Googling our symptoms is one thing, being fed serious health information by an app is an entirely different one.

You might be feeling completely fine before a TikTok video of someone explaining their fatigue was actually a symptom of Leukemia leaves you worrying that your recent tiredness might be too.

 “This reaction can be a very normal response, and while it might warrant further investigation, it also may not,” Carly explains.

“There is a phenomena that occurs with medical and psychology students in which they frequently perceive themselves to be experiencing the symptoms of the illnesses that they are studying.

“Anyone can become preoccupied with symptoms, and forget that many physical and mental health variables can often interact to make us feel a whole range of sensations at any given time.”

While in some rare cases, these videos may hold the key to a diagnosis, a lot of the time they don’t and simply cause us unnecessary anxiety about our health.

“Health and symptom content online can be very helpful and it can also be very harmful. There is an incredibly wide range of quality in content that we can stumble across online, and without knowing the education the creator has, their expertise and motivation for creating these videos- it is difficult to not wonder if these symptoms could be applicable to you.”

For this reason, Carly says to remember that these videos have been created for a purpose.

“These videos have been designed by the content creator to get people hooked and to become viral, so making broad and very generalisable claims such as being ‘tired’ means that almost anyone could wonder if they had the illness the video is referring to.”

If you do find yourself feeling upset by the content you’re seeing, Carly recommends putting some boundaries in place.

“I really encourage healthy time boundaries that will serve as helpful guardrails when being online. I also encourage remaining connected to your existing friends and community, engaging in movement and hobbies, prioritising sleep, and participating in helpful actions like donating to causes that might help people going through particular illnesses or diseases if you feel like you’d like to do something tangible.”

Sometimes, it’s important to remember that the healthiest thing to do, is to turn the phone off.

What Do I Do If A TikTok Video Has Triggered Health Anxiety?

Carly says that its important to reflect on how you felt before watching the video.

“It might be helpful to ask yourself if you were feeling okay in the previous hours before watching the content, and reminding yourself that even if you are watching content from someone who is trained in their field, these symptoms still may not mean anything serious,” she explains.

“Remind yourself that you can make an appointment to see a GP or other health specialist whenever you need, and that stress can also worsen whatever symptoms we are already feeling, so any stress reducing activity you can engage in might be very helpful (movement, meditation, shower, socialising or stretching).”

How Do I Know If TikTok Content Is Affecting My Mental Health?

“I would be encouraging people to consider if engaging with the content is impacting their sleep, work, study, relationships, concentration, stress levels, and if they’re spending more time than they would like to watching or reading this content,” Carly explains.

Carly also encourages you to ask yourself the following questions to spot any red flags: Is it often on your mind and you find it difficult to think about much else? Are you becoming obsessive in your need to learn more? Is it impacting your mood and are you withdrawing or isolating from your normal routines?

“If so, I’d encourage talking to friends or family members about what is going on for you, and if you need further support—connect to a psychologist or your GP who might be able to help you fact check, assess, and treat what might be going on for you.”

You can find Carly on her website and Instagram.

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